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Going behind the scenes at Lovehoney: interview

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Tonight we’ll find out what the cameras saw when they spent five months behind the scenes at online sex toy retailer Lovehoney. Ahead of the screening of More Sex Please We’re British (tonight, 10pm, Channel 4) we caught up with Lovehoney founders Neal Slateford (pictured right) and Richard Longhurst (left) to find out more about the company the two started with their redundancy money – and to find out what advice they have for others with aspirations to follow in their footsteps.

Back in 2002, the dotcom bubble was well and truly burst and Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst had just been made redundant. During their time at Future Publishing in Bath, where Slateford worked in web development and Longhurst was editor of .net magazine, the two had watched as millions were made – and lost – in the preceding years. The conclusion they arrived at? “We thought, yes, we can do that,” said Longhurst. “We’d worked in the internet for quite a number of years and had developed skills that enabled us to do that.”

But while they knew they wanted to start an ecommerce business, they didn’t know what to sell. If it hadn’t been sex toys, says Slateford, could have been kitsch toys or even crossstitching kit. What a different business that could have been. The clincher, however, came when Slateford decided to add an adult section to the online shopping directory he was running at the time. What he found in the 2002 world of online sex toy retail was not impressive. “The sites were badly designed and technically limited,” he said. “They were also badly designed from a customer point of view. They weren’t written with women in mind – it was all semi-pornographic at a time when Sex and the City had popularized the Rabbit. There was clearly a mismatch between the offering online and who the customer was.

“Then lastly, all these sites were offering giant commissions on referred sales – that was a lightbulb moment – there could be some good profit margins. So that’s what we plumped for. We found a supplier and off we went.”

Neither were ecommerce experts, but, said Slateford: “We knew enough not to be ripped off by people wanting to build us websites,” – and enough to value the input of their chief technical officer Geoff Parkhurst, who “has built Lovehoney from the ground upwards” and is still there today. The site itself launched in April 2002. Rather than that ‘semi-pornographic’ experience that others offered, Lovehoney offered took a ‘sexual happiness’ approach to the market and today offers features such as buying guides and videos advising prospective buyers on purchases.

The first sale was made on April 21 – and it took six days for the second to come in. For two years neither founder took any money out of the business, instead taking on second jobs to live. Slateford was a DJ, while Longhurst worked as a freelance journalist. “Any money we had went back into the business, buying new stock and eventually premises,” said Longhurst.

That was ten years ago – and today the site is turning over between £16m and £17m a year, employs 65 people, and is set to star in tonight’s Channel 4 documentary, More Sex Please We’re British. Was it a difficult decision to let the cameras in? “For me,” said Longhurst, “the decision hinged on whether we think we’re idiots. Are we going to look like idiots on TV? If we are, then we deserve to look like idiots, if we’re not, then what have we got to hide? Lovehoney is a fantastic business, very professional, in a slightly unusual market, which is what provides the interest around this show.”

For Slateford, the show, which not only provides an insight into the UK’s sexual habits but also into the mechanics of running an online business, will also remind him what it’s like. “Having spent the last 10 years of my life doing this, I thought it would be nice to have a record so I can look back when I’m even older than I am now.”

So what lessons do Slateford and Longhurst have for others who may just be contemplating, redundancy cheque in hand, starting their own ecommerce business?

  • “Your website will never be finished.”

  • “Never make assumptions about what your customers might want. We were quite coy in our early days with some of the items we sold, we found we got requests saying I like your website but I want to buy this thing.”

  • “Go niche or go home. You can’t compete with your Amazons or eBays, so specialise in something where you can add value.”

  • “I would counsel noone to spend any money with any agencies till they have had a look at all the free services like Amazon webstores, eBay and Shopify. There are tonnes and tonnes of things you can use for a low-cost try out of your market. You can try things like SEO really very cheaply without needing to sign up with agencies who will charge an enormous amount of money.”

  • “It’s quite important to have a partner to work with because it’s very tough to do it on your own. If you have complementary skills then you constantly have someone to commiserate with during the bad times and celebrate during the good. I would say it’s very tough to do it on your own. It helps if your business partner is belligerent and persistent because that pays off.”

More Sex Please We’re British is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight. (Tuesday May 8 2012).

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